Monism, Dualism, and Holism

Psalms 144:3-4 (HCSB)
LORD, what is man, that You care for him,
the son of man, that You think of him?
Man is like a breath;
his days are like a passing shadow.

Monism says that a human being that is alive is just one substance. There is no way to divide up a living person according to monism (from the perspective of essence anyway), because there is nothing to separate. In other words, whatever the alive person is, according to monism such is like a rock. No matter how you slice it, all that you are ever left with is a rock.

Dualism says that an alive person consists of just two substances. There is a way to divide up a living human being in dualism, because there are two things which can be separated. In other words, according to dualism, whatever a living person is, such is like a cake with icing. Even though the cake as a whole is more complete with the icing, it can still be a cake without it.

Holism says that a living person is an intimate interconnection (a whole) where no aspect of it can live independently of the whole. To think that you could divide a living human being up is to make a category error regarding him or her. In other words, according to holism, a living man or woman cannot possibly be alive (in any sense), unless the entire whole that is them, is fully intact and is functioning.

Man and River

The Old Testament gives us an idea of which of these three viewpoints best describes what a living human being is. Take this rhetorical question and response in the book of Job…

Job 14:10-12a (HCSB)
But a man dies and fades away;
he breathes his last — where is he?
As water disappears from the sea
and a river becomes parched and dry,
so man lies down never to rise again.

Whatever a living human being is, we are likened in the Bible to an active river. This comparison helps to illustrate what a person who is alive is, at their very core. In order for an active river to be an active river, there must be a complete whole, which is all fully there and functioning. In other words, for an active river to be an active river, not only must there be a riverbed by which water can flow, but there must also be water, and the water must be flowing. Notice the picture above. The riverbed is there and water is there, but it’s not flowing. Therefore, there is no active river. The same goes for a human being who is alive. He/she has a physicalness (body), a non-physicalness (proclivity, will, desires, character, etc.), and vitality (more on this below).

Monism, Dualism, and Holism

What an active river is and what a living person is, does not jive with monism. There’s definitely more to a both than just simply one single aspect. Dualism also does not fit with what an active river is or what a living human being is either. As was previously mentioned, an active river is not just a riverbed plus water, which is how dualism would break it down. Again, in order for an active river to be an active river, not only must a riverbed and water be there, but it must also be flowing. The same goes for a living human being. A living person is not just a physicalness plus a non-physicalness, as dualism suggests. In order for a living human being to be a living human being, there must also be something else. The Bible brings out this point as well. In order to be a living being, according to Genesis, there must also be something more to the equation: vitality (the breath of life)…

Genesis 2:7 (HCSB)
Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.

Not until “the breath of life” or aliveness (vitality) becomes part of the equation, do we then have a living being. Holism is the only view which fits, because it is the only view which recognizes all that contributes to what a living person is. Again, to not have any aspect of the whole is to not have a living being.

Back to the Rhetorical Question and Response in Job

To ask where a living someone might be after “he breaths his last,” is like asking where the active river goes when it drys up. The question doesn’t make sense. But, isn’t that the point? A living human being doesn’t go anywhere when he/she breaths their last; just as an active river doesn’t go anywhere when it “becomes parched and dry.” The point of the response in Job is that what is left in both cases is evidence that there once was…

1) a viable person, and
2) a viable flow of water.

In other words, the remains of a once viable person (a man lying down/dead body) and the remains of a once viable river (a parched and dried up riverbed) proves that each of them were once whole and functioning, but not anymore. To think that they both went somewhere else and are now viable there, is absurd. Again, that’s the point. Both have not disappeared, because they have not actually gone anywhere. They are both simply not functioning any longer…. They are dead.

The psalms touch on this same theme:

Psalms 104:29-30 (HCSB)
When You hide Your face,
they are terrified;
when You take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When You send Your breath,
they are created,
and You renew the face of the earth.


That poses a question…

Can something that is dead ever become viable or alive again?

Well, in the case of an active river, all you need to bring it back (after it was “dead”) is to have water again flowing in the parched and dry riverbed. As for living human beings, whatever view one might take regarding what a living person might be, one thing is for certain: God can bring us back to life after we die…

Ezekiel 37:1-10 (HCSB)
The hand of the LORD was on me, and He brought me out by His Spirit and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them. There were a great many of them on the surface of the valley, and they were very dry. Then He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I replied, “Lord GOD, only You know.”

He said to me, “Prophesy concerning these bones and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Lord GOD says to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you will live. I will put tendons on you, make flesh grow on you, and cover you with skin. I will put breath in you so that you come to life. Then you will know that I am Yahweh.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded. While I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. As I looked, tendons appeared on them, flesh grew, and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man. Say to it: This is what the Lord GOD says: Breath, come from the four winds and breathe into these slain so that they may live!” So I prophesied as He commanded me; the breath entered them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army.


Psalms 104:29-30 (HCSB)
When You hide Your face,
they are terrified;
when You take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When You send Your breath,
they are created,
and You renew the face of the earth.

James 2:26a (HCSB)
For just as the body without the spirit [breath] is dead…

May we all be encouraged by what Christ can do:

John 11:17-27 (HCSB)
When Jesus arrived, He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem (about two miles away). Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet Him. But Mary remained seated in the house.

Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Yet even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You.”

“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus told her.

Martha said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die — ever. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told Him, “I believe You are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world.”

Godspeed, to the brethren!

*For another approach to this topic, check out this video from the folks at The Bible Project…

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